Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I just read a fantastic novel by the young writer Sarah Perry titled The Essex Serpent which takes place in a small fishing village in the East of England in 1893. The credulous villagers–along with a young, worldly widow from London, are convinced that they are being terrorized by an ancient sea monster lurking in the Blackwater Estuary. Naturally, the one man fighting against the superstition of the locals is the village rector. Also naturally, there is a great deal of sexual tension between the rector and the young, worldly London widow. I should note, this book was a Christmas gift, not a purchase I made for myself. I’ll not spoil how any of it turns out, of course, and I only bring it up to highlight the fact that even in contemporary literature we’ve maintained this view of “fisherfolk” as simple-minded, uneducated, credulous bumpkins.

In addition to being a literary trope, there is, no doubt, some truth to this. Now, I’m sure there have always been and continue to be well-educated people who choose commercial fishing as their trade, but it has not historically been a profession populated by the intellectual elite. It certainly wasn’t in the ancient world. Now, this claim can be taken too far; it is quite likely that of those four Jesus called in this morning’s Gospel, at least Simon Peter and John were literate. Literacy rates among ancient Jews, even those of low-estate, were remarkably high compared to other contemporary groups. Even so, these two were not intellectual titans. You would not have seen them debating scriptural interpretation in the local synagogue or philosophy in the local forum.

Consider Peter and John together before the Council in the fourth chapter of Acts. The priests and scribes are astonished at what they hear, because these men, they believed, were credulous rustic fishermen from the provinces. “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they wondered.” Consider also that we know Peter had to rely on an amanuensis for his epistles, whom he identifies as Silvanus, and if you hold (as I do) to the traditional position about Gospel authorship, Mark served the same role in recording Peter’s witness in the Gospel from which we just read. John, while not identifying such an assistant has traditionally been assumed to have one–namely, Prochorus, one of the first seven deacons, whose ordinations are recorded in Acts 6. Even if that’s not the case, for all its theological richness (perhaps greatest among the Gospels) the Greek of John’s Gospel is unquestionably the simplest. (In seminary Greek class, we always hoped it would be a Johannine passage on the final exam!) So, alongside texts penned by physician and a tax-collector–two clearly educated people–we have the accounts of simple fisher-folk to complete the foursquare foundation on which our faith is so firmly founded.

The Church Fathers recognized the significance and apparent incongruousness of the Lord choosing these men. Hear what Eusebius wrote in his Proof of the Gospel:

Reflect on the nature and grandeur of the one Almighty God who could associate himself with the poor of the lowly fisherman’s class. To use them to carry out God’s mission baffles all rationality. For having conceived the intention, which no one ever before had done, of spreading his own commands and teachings to all nations, and of revealing himself as the teacher of the religion of the one Almighty God to all humanity, he thought good to use the most unsophisticated and common people as ministers of his own design. Maybe God just wanted to work in the most unlikely way. For how could inarticulate folk be made able to teach, even if they were appointed teachers to only one person, much less to a multitude? How should those who were themselves without education instruct the nations?

For all that this may have seemed a “tactical error” this is precisely what God did, the means by which the Gospel indeed spread through all the world.

Now this is a hard thing for somebody who considers himself well-educated and relatively intellectually sophisticated to acknowledge, but it is nonetheless a truth which we must all come to appreciate. I like to believe that I can give a reasoned case for the faith as the church has received it, and there is a place for that. But how much more powerful is the witness of one whose experience of the living Christ has less need to be couched in the language of advanced metaphysics and historical and linguistic inquiry? How much more convincing is the one who can say, “I know the Lord God lives, because that is how I have experienced his presence in my life”?

I think this is the message we can take from the vocations of Simon Peter and Andrew and James and John. No doubt there are specialized callings within the body of Christ. No doubt some are especially suited to the work of apologetics or philosophical theology or biblical interpretation, but we are all called to and capable of the work of evangelization no matter our background, simply because we have come to believe. As that old African-American spiritual put it: If you cannot preach like Peter,
If you cannot pray like Paul,
You can tell the love of Jesus,
And say He died for all.
This, friends, is not only something we all can do; it is something each of us is called to do. It needn’t be overbearing or saccharine. It mustn’t be self-serving or insincere. It can be as simple as the fisherman’s story: “I was casting my net, I was mending my net, and the Lord called me to be a fisher of men, and I could not deny him.”
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.